Anyone who retains a vestigial belief in the truth of all those deeply un-PC jokes about the alleged cowardliness of our Italian confreres (Italy's battle flag? A white cross on a white background. Why do Italian tanks have six gears? One forward and five reverse, etc, etc) should try suggesting to Mrs Virginia Lopalco that she stuff her ravioli with chicken tikka. The experience is not for the faint of heart. With the waving fist and heaving bosom of a late Verdi heroine, Mrs Lopalco arias, fortissimo, `No way. If you're going to do Indian food, then do Indian food. If you're doing Italian, then you do Italian. Chicken tikka ravioli?' - she emits an untransliteratable sound of hideous contempt, roughly approximate to pffft - ` No. Do you know what I heard the other day? Someone has produced a ravioli' - Mrs Lopalco's voice drops to a horrified pianissimo at the thought - `with baked beans inside. Baked beans. I ask you. People say to me, "You too must do this sort of thing." I say to them,' she concludes, striking her breast, `Not in this life.'
As you may by now have gathered, Virginia Lopalco does not take her pasta lightly. And little wonder. Quite apart from the indignities being visited on that comestible by a tikka-ravioli-making avant garde, Lopalco is co-creator and owner (with her husband, Salvatore and brother, Roberto Santi) of Pasta Reale: the first and, to date, the largest supplier of fresh pasta to the ever-expanding British waistline.
For those of you not au fait with the arcana of medaglioni and agnolotti, pasta divides broadly into two camps: dry pasta, that indestructible, desiccated staple of a million kitchen store cupboards; and fresh, the sort that mama very probably didn't use to make but might well have done had she - like Mrs Lopalco - been from the Veneto. The latter is immeasurably nicer than the former, but it is also considerably more expensive. Since it cannot be left stored up against the day when the wife announces that she is bringing the rugby team home for dinner in 20 minutes (the shelf life of Pasta Reale's products averages 18 days), it is also less convenient. Nonetheless, fresh pasta has been among the success stories in the British food industry over the past decade, a fact that is due largely - perhaps, indeed, entirely - to the Lopalcos. `We started the trend,' asserts Mrs Lopalco, proudly. `I don't care what anyone says: before us, there was simply no commercial fresh pasta available in Britain.'
Arriving 30 years ago as a dinner maid at that model of British egalitarianism and fine cooking, Eton, Virginia Lopalco recalls only being able to force herself to toy with the delights of rissoles and spotted dick at all `because I was so hungry I would have eaten anything'. Horrified at the perfidious culinary habits of her adopted land, she and Salvatore, a chef from Brindisi, set about with missionary zeal to educate the English palate in the ways of panzerotti and paglia e fieno via their Croydon restaurant, the Bella Venezia. When supplies of her home-made pasta exceeded demand, a frugal Mrs Lopalco took to selling the overspill to a nearby delicatessen. Such was the popularity of its reception that her brother's honeymoon in Italy in 1978 was spent looking at pasta-making machinery: `His wife nearly left him there and then,' muses his sister, tenderly. In 1980, Virginia Lopalco walked into a local branch of Waitrose and offered them her wares. They accepted. The rest, as they say, is ravioli.
And in by no means inconsiderable helpings. In 1977, the British market in fresh pasta was worth, by the Lopalcos' calculations, precisely nil. Seventeen years later, it is worth very probably in excess of £30 million annually, with sales growing - in spite of a continuing recession - at a steady 20% per annum.
Moreover it has blossomed in sophistication as well as size. In 1983, 70 % of all UK pasta sales were accounted for by the ubiquitous spaghetti. In 1993, spaghetti took only 35% of sales, with the rest accounted for by such exotica as penne and tagliatelle. With an expected turnover of £12 million for 1994 and a new £9 million purpose-built factory on the perimeter of Gatwick Airport, Pasta Reale's recently-recruited CEO, John Freestone, calculates his present share of this burgeoning market to be somewhere around 40%. Half of this is currently accounted for by branded sales, but a growing proportion now comes from the provision of own-label products to the likes of multiples such as Waitrose and Safeway.
It is also these that have provided Pasta Reale with its more operatic moments in recent years, however. Headhunted from Dairy Crest to provide tighter management - `We're workers, not anything fancy like financiers,' says Virginia Lopalco, with engaging candour - Freestone admits that the company is `constantly being pressured ... er, encouraged ... to expand its product range'. Pasta Reale's nearest rival - the Pasta Company, backed by the vast resources of the Geest group - has so far made little headway in penetrating the valuable multiples market: but its less purist approach to the arcane science of pasta-making (departures include, to Mrs Lopalco's undisguised disgust, the manufacture of chocolate ravi-oli) might well be supposed to place it in a position 62e of commercial advantage in any future pasta wars.
Hearteningly, however, the results of a recent £150,000 market research project - the first Pasta Reale has been able to afford - suggest rather the opposite. `Research is all very well as long as it tells you what you want to hear,' observes a clearly rueful Freestone. In fact, what Pasta Reale's research showed was that Virginia Lopalco's dogged flat-earthism fitted market expectations to a degree that was almost unbelievable.
What the purchaser of a packet of tagliatelle fragranti in the sun-kissed foothills of Salford or Dagenham likes to imagine, it would seem, is that their evening's amuse-gueule has actually been run up by an Italian mama humming La donna e mobile in her kitchen. The fact that Pasta Reale's recipes are entirely masterminded by a dogmatic Venetian grandmother rather than by a marketing man with a PhD in food sciences thus makes Virginia Lopalco what Freestone calls `the company's secret weapon'. Far from glitzing up its product, Pasta Reale has consequently just spent another £500,000 or so on (among other things) redesigning its logo so that it now bears a marked resemblance to that of Ovaltine.
All this has, however, left Freestone with two potential problems. The first is endemic to manufacturers of own-brand products, namely that too enthusiastic a deployment of Pasta Reale's secret weapon might be expected to cause a degree of miffedness among the multiples whose directly competing pastas the company also manufactures. Freestone's product may have achieved geographical ubiquity via the multiples, but its sales are still largely demographically restricted to that socio-economic stratum which takes its holidays with John Mortimer in Chiantishire. All those convenience-food-buying C2s are out there waiting to be initiated into the delights of penne a'l'amatriciana, too but how does one get at them without treading on the hypersensitive toes of Messrs Waitrose et al? `Virginia is doing a recipe book,' hazards Freestone, `but we do have to strike a balance between own-brand and retail.'
A second problem is that the operatic repugnance felt by Freestone's secret weapon to the idea of postmodern pasta-making does limit the potential for product range expansion somewhat. Pasta Reale has recently added three new products to its batterie de cuisine, but its CEO's rhetorical line - `Is the future of Pasta Reale just in fresh pasta, or is it in fresh pasta with associated products?'-does suggest a projected diversification into, say, complete recipe dishes (a suggestion that Freestone greets with a wary `You may well be on the right line'). Such a move could be more than accommodated by excess capacity at the company's smart new factory: but it would also take Pasta Reale into competition with such sharp-toothed players as Marks & Spencer.
In any case, the four pairs of eyes seated around Pasta Reale's boardroom table are currently transfixed by a less contentious (if more surprising) vision: the fresh pasta market in - of all places - Italy. If this sounds like a more flavoursome version of the selling of coals to Newcastle, the reasoning behind it is nonetheless compelling. `Life has changed in Italy,' says Virginia Lopalco, a touch sadly. `There is no grandmother at home any more, and young girls go out to work. Making ravioli, tortellini - it takes time - two, three hours.'
The response of Italian pasta-makers to this social shift has, however, so far proved negligible. The vacuum-packed commodity marketed as `fresh' in Italian supermarkets has, points out an outraged Mrs Lopalco, a shelf-life of nine months. The available range is also tiny. `We went to Italy last year to look for new concepts,' Freestone recalls, `but the only differential we could find was in label and price.' Italians eat 26 kilos of fresh pasta a year, none of it containing baked beans or chocolate. Ergo...
If proof were needed of the logic of all this, it may be provided by the steady stream of Italian pasta-makers that has taken to ringing up asking for factory tours. `I tell them, "We're near Gatwick Airport - come and have a coffee",' hoots Mrs Lopalco. `But that's all they're going to get.'
In any case, and even if fresh pasta does not - as in Freestone's rosiest vision - eventually replace the potato as Britain's staple foodstuff, there is life in the domestic market yet. Food industry titans such as Mars and Nestle have already put tentative toes in the water, but Freestone is confident that barriers are sufficiently high to deter them from diving in. (`We've invested £12 million to tap a £30 million market,' reasons Freestone. `Who's going to follow that?'). There has been much acquisitive sniffing about by these titans, but the Lopalcos - two sons and a daughter are already in the firm - have no intention of selling. And then, of course, there is Virginia Lopalco herself. `We have a deal,' says Freestone, beaming at his secret weapon. `Virginia's going to retire at 85'. `Maybe,' says Mrs Lopalco, by no means convinced.